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A leap in lepidoptery

In early 2018 I was back in my second home, Madagascar, to get my fix of sambos, lemurs and other wildlife. Once again I had the pleasure of spending some time with SEED Madagascar’s conservation programme in Sainte Luce. SEED provide unique volunteering experiences working with the fabulous endemic wildlife and people of Madagascar – check out our programmes today!


A spontaneous butterfly transect has to be one of the more unusual and fun things I’ve done recently. When Sam asked if we’d be interested in this on our day off (rather than sitting around at the beach), we jumped at the chance. Sam Hyde Roberts has spent most of the last three years out in the field in Madagascar, and you can tell. He’s a forest veteran, and a consummate conservationist. Along with a group of excellent research assistants and a conservation coordinator, he’s based in the bush at Sainte Luce. Like anyone who’s been there more than five minutes, he’s both optimist and pessimist, sometimes in the same breath.

When you first hear of Madagascar it sounds like wildlife paradise. The reality is much more complicated. As well as lemurs, chameleons, birds and other extraordinary wildlife, it’s home to 25 million people. Around 90% are living below the poverty line of $2 per day1, and of these many are traditionally farmers, living on the edge of forests. Preserving habitat whilst balancing human need is the classic conservation problem, and it’s no different here, with ever increasing demands on the land. In Madagascar this is compounded by political instability and successive weak, underfunded governments. Political issues also caused some of the NGOs and funders offering support to pull out, causing further uncertainty. It’s also one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, with ever more severe cyclones and droughts. There’s plenty of cause for hope though. Small scale projects which involve and support local people have had a lot of success.23. Community-led projects like Association Mitsinjo in the East have become hubs for researchers as well as providing livelihoods. Tourism is on the rise again4, and in my opinion there’s no better time to visit.

Conor and I with butterfly nets and jar during transect

Butterfly hunters
(photo by Nessa Darcy)

Catching butterflies isn’t all that difficult on paper. Take a big, cone-shaped (butterfly) net on a stick, and swoosh it down to the floor on top of one, and you might well catch it. They’re surprisingly elusive though. When threatened, the larger ones have a habit of flying higher than even an Olympian confronted by a scorpion might hope to jump. Worse still is to only half catch a butterfly and watch the poor thing flap off half dazed. Catching them well comes with practice, but neophytes can experience beginners luck. If you catch a butterfly you immediately ground it, but for some reason trapped butterflies only fly upwards anyway; this makes it easy once they’re in the net. On a butterfly transect the point, scientifically speaking, is to collect data on butterflies. You walk along a set path through the forest, with eyes peeled and nets a-ready. For the most part all you need to do is collect data on species prevalence, habitat and distribution. Most individuals you encounter you can catch and release, or even just observe if you’re quick about it. In Madagascar the data is very limited, so a species you encounter in Sainte Luce might not have been seen there before, or be presumed extinct. In some cases you’re even collecting specimens at the front line of science.

“the SEED conservation team recently found a species of dragonfly thought extinct for 125 years”

On this transect we were lucky to see a lot, including the ubiquituous species, forest browns (Nymphalidae – Strabena spp.) and common whites (Pieridae – Leptosia spp). We also encountered beautiful red-orange skippers (Hesperiidae), and a lurid yellow salt moth. Most exciting though, we caught two specimens new to Sainte Luce. First a white and grey tinting (Spalgis tintinga), a very interesting species previously only known from 650km north of Sainte Luce. Our star though was a small orange and black striped moth. Believed to be a new species of syntomine moth from the garden tiger family, it was an amazing find. Unfortunately for them. these poor beauties had some scientific merit. Good specimens spent their final moments with acetone-doused cotton wool in the aptly-named “killing jar”. It sounds contrary to conservation’s definition, but efforts like this are crucial. Proving the biological diversity and uniqueness of habitats like those found in Sainte Luce is essential. I’d argue it’s based on dubious logic, but everything has to have a financial value to be worth preserving. It’s one of the Universe’s cruel jokes that rare habitats often have lucrative resources underneath them. Sainte Luce is no exception, with ilmenite deposits under the forests (a titanium ore, used to whiten our unnaturally white products). However, the more unique, photogenic species a habitat has, the easier it is to convince a government, funder, or prospecting company to save it. In Sainte Luce, the SEED conservation team recently found a species of dragonfly thought extinct for 125 years. Known before only from an old museum collection with no information about where it was caught, it turns out it’s live and winging. Sam himself recently found another candidate new species of skipper butterfly in the North West, now awaiting DNA barcoding and species confirmation (thought at the moment to belong to the genus Malaza). Even on lemurs, perhaps the most well-known animals in Madagascar, we’re still learning.

Beautiful forest brown butterfly with spread wings

Woodland brown butterfly (Photo by Nessa Darcy)

At this point my travel journal has a breathless interlude. I was writing up this adventure in the camp longhouse as usual, and felt something scuttle over my foot. Looking down, it was only a large cockroach, making hell for leather to the shadows on the other side of the room. Indignant, I looked around, and promptly had a shock of my own. About a foot away from me, on the very wall I was leaning against, a scorpion had another cockroach in its vice-like grip. I’d missed the stinger flick in to it’s hapless victim, but it had secured a fine lunch. It wasn’t a particularly big scorpion mind you, but with scorpions that isn’t always a good thing5. More than anything else I was surprised by the silence of the whole episode- I hadn’t heard a thing. Quite pleased my arm didn’t look like a juicy morsel, or, at least there was something more tempting around.

Orange furcifer verrucosus chameleon, with blue warts

Back on the transect in the dappled, sunlit forest, it wasn’t only butterflies and moths. We wandered past a few frogs, and a couple of Madagascar’s poster clades, lemurs and chameleons. I reckon the furcifer verrucosus or “warty” chameleon was named by somebody who hadn’t had their morning mofo6. This gorgeous species is endemic to the eighth continent, and can display an amazing range of colours, including the bright rust orange we saw today. Moving slowly along the tree it kept up the characteristic stealthy chameleon movement (as my friend Abi would say, “is it a branch? is it a branch? it’s a branch.”), even though it knew we’d rumbled it. Lemurs meanwhile can be very unstealthy when they’re comfortable. The red-collared brown lemur we bumped into this time took almost no notice of our presence, so busy was he grunting at his fellows. It’s extraordinary how the appeal of lemurs doesn’t fade. A troop visit the conservation camp almost daily, and yet every single time I’d be greedily watching their antics. We also spent a few minutes looking for a ground boa known to be nesting in the vicinity, but to no avail. Gon’ huntin, perhaps. As a creative entomologist (the first of her kind?) Nessa was in her element as usual, delighting in every insect we came across. It became a theme throughout this trip that while she was combing the ground and bushes for insects and amphibians, I’d be gawking at the treetops and branches for lemurs. Perhaps you can guess which one of us fell in the most ditches.

At the end of the session we returned to camp on the edge of the forest. On the way in we encountered one last butterfly which looked interesting. It was my moment for glory at last, and I jumped backwards over a tree root, swinging my net in a beautiful arc. To my (everyone’s) surprise, it actually worked, and I’d made my first half decent catch. In your face, secondary school cricket. After a revitalising rice-and-beans lunch, Sam extracted the hard won specimens. Spreading their wings with tweezers and infinite care, he gently placed each one in a protective pouch for shipping. Despite claiming he was not an expert, he was able to identify the species, and noted this with the date and location on the outside. These specimens would soon be heading to the Natural History Museum for official identification, and who knows, perhaps one of those we collected might be on display one day.


With thanks to: SEED Madagascar for the warm welcome as always, and Sam Hyde Roberts for his expertise and patience. Conor Friel and Nessa Darcy for excellent travelling companionship and amazing photos. Everyone at the SEED campsite in January 2018 for smiles, songs and Skip-Bo. If SEED’s volunteering programmes sound like your kind of thing, I can’t recommend them highly enough; suffice to say I’ll be back again someday.


Notes:

  1. World Food Programme Madagascar: “More than 90 percent of the population live below the international poverty line [$2 per day]”.
  2. Blue Ventures’ Community-Led Conservation in Madagascar
  3. Stitch Sainte Luce: Our achievements so far
  4. From a speech given by the Minister for Tourism: http://www.guidaviaggi.it/notizie/183551/madagascar-obiettivo-
  5. I’ve often heard it said that it’s better to be stung by a large scorpion than a small one – something to do with the venom being less potent in the larger varieties. Attempting to answer it properly for this article the best I could come up with is: it’s sometimes better to be stung by larger species because some of the smaller species do have more dangerous/painful venom. If anyone has a better answer, or an answer specific to Madagascar, I’m all ears. Of course it’s probably better not to be stung by one at all.
  6. Mofo (pronounced moo-foo or shortened to moof) are fried balls of dough. Breakfast out in the bush consists of mofo, rice, banana, condensed milk and godrogodro, a kind of banana bread. There’s no better breakfast.

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